Making every bite count

19 February 2008

The sweet spot

Sugar is no friend of mine. Empty calories, those white crystals get the cold shoulder in my kitchen. Stevia, maple syrup, honey, even fruit juices are good stand-ins with a bit more nutritional value. Sugar goes against the "making every bite count" philosophy. That said, I know that sometimes I have to swallow my pride and make nice with the sweet stuff, especially in baked goods.
This weekend I picked up my new baking bible, "The Joy of Vegan Baking," at Park + Vine. I'm in love. I'm not vegan, and I probably never will be, but I enjoy vegan baking. Giving baked goods that harm the health of your loved ones brings bad karma, à mon avis.
I have already tried out the carrot cake recipe and delivered a mini version to my friend Dan. Instead of eggs, this recipe calls for flaxseeds and water. When whipped with a hand blender or in a food processor, the flax breaks down, turns light and becomes a thick, foamy cream similar to a nut butter. Instead of butter, the recipe used canola oil (I used olive oil because that was all I had).
But the sugar. Oh, the sugar. During my recent trip to the natural foods store in my mom's hometown, I bought what I later realized was evaporated cane juice. The grains are similar in size to plain old granulated sugar, but the color is slightly darker.
Sugar, I recently discovered, is not vegan. Cane sugar is processed using charcoal, which usually is from an animal source, bone char. According to, the use of bone char in refining sugar is a touchy subject. The bone char is so far removed from animal matter that it can be called kosher pareve, which means it neither contains meat nor milk. However, vegans disagree.
For me, the matter of refinement is what bothers me. Why not just leave the sugar in as pure a state as possible?
A decade ago, wandering down the sugar aisle of a traditional grocery store would have yielded few choices: light and brown sugar, white sugar, powdered sugar, and sugar substitutes.
Today, those sugars have plenty of company: Turbinado, sucanat, Splenda, evaporated cane juice, raw sugar...
What are those sugars and how do they "work"?
Granulated sugar is the stuff in five-pound bags. White, sweet, grainy. It comes from either sugarcane or sugar beets. The white color comes from treatment wih phosphoric acid, then filtration through charcoal (this is where the bone char is used).
Brown sugar is either a processed white sugar with molasses added or partially unrefined sugar that still has molasses attached.
Powdered or confectioners sugar is simply granulated sugar ground to a fine consistency, with constarch or another anticaking substance added.
Artificial sweeteners never have a place in my kitchen, and they shouldn't have one in yours. Therefore, I'm ignoring their existance. Use real sugar or go without.
Turbinado is a kind of raw sugar (those "Sugar in the Raw" packets are turbinado). It's a kind of sugar cane extract, with little molasses and a light golden color. It is made by steaming raw sugar.
Sucanat, or Sugar cane natural, is unrefined cane sugar. It is evaporated cane juice. Sucanat is the best choice; it has the least amount of sucrose.



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